More Than 100 New Species Found in Newly Discovered Bermuda Ocean Zone

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A dive team sets up a seabed lab during Nekton Mission 1, part of the XL Catlin Deep Ocean Survey in Bermuda. (Photo: Nekton)

The ocean never ceases to surprise us, even in waters we've studied for decades.

Take, for instance, the waters off the coast of Bermuda. Scientists have discovered a whole new ocean zone that's home to previously undiscovered species of marine life.

"If life in the shallower regions of the deep sea is so poorly documented, it undermines confidence in our existing understanding of how the patterns of life change with depth," Alex Rogers, scientific director of the Nekton Oxford Deep Ocean Research Institute and a profess of biology at Oxford, said in a statement.

A whole new world

A new coral species called Stichopathes was found as part of the Nekton mission. (Photo: Nekton)

The scientists dubbed the new ocean zone the Rariphotic Zone or the rare light zone. It extends from 226 feet (130 meters) to 984 feet (300 meters) below the ocean surface and is the fourth biological zone of the top 9,842 feet (3,000 meters) of the ocean.

This new ocean zone led to the discovery of over 100 new marine species, including dozens of new algae, coral and crustacean species.

Bermuda's Rariphotic Zone contained a range of sea life, including sea fans and coral, like the Tanacetipathes hirta. (Photo: Nekton)

Researchers were clued into the potential scientific treasure trove by a subsea algal forest on the summit of the Plantagenet Seamount, or an underwater mountain. Located just 15 miles off Bermuda's coast, the slope of the seamount contained coral, sea fans, green moray eels, sea urchin and yellow hermit crabs. The larger organisms were feasting on zooplankton and algae that were floating down from the summit.

"We believe we have discovered dozens of new species of algae including the deepest ever record to have had its DNA sequenced. Many are recognized for demonstrating a new bio-geographical link between Bermuda and the Indo-Pacific," professor Craig Schneider of Trinity College explained in the statement.

Nekton divers join a sub while exploring the waters of Bermuda. (Photo: Nekton)

The mission, called XL Catlin Deep Ocean Survey, is Nekton's first interdisciplinary research initiative. It was conducted in July and August 2016, using a number of techniques and devices, including dive teams, two manned submersible vehicles and a remotely controlled vehicle to reach depths of almost 5,000 feet (1,500 meters).

In addition to exploring this undiscovered environment, Nekton's mission also sought to develop new standardized methods for conducting this type of ocean research. Dubbed General Ocean Survey and Sampling Iterative Protocol, or GOSSIP, the methodology "enables marine scientists to measure standardized physical, chemical and biological indicators and generate comparable data on the function, health and resilience of the ocean. This will help catalyze improved ocean governance," Rogers said on Nekton's website.

A lionfish swims through the Bermuda Rariphotic Zone. (Photo: Nekton)

Exploring Bermuda isn't the end of Nekton's ocean missions. Indeed, it's just the beginning.

Starting later this year, scientists will begin a four-year study of the Indian Ocean, consisting of six cruises in six different bioregions of the ocean. Researchers will move west (Mozambique Channel and Seychelles) to central (Mauritius and Maldives) to east (Andaman and Sumatra). Like the work in Bermuda, Nekton researchers hope their final report on the ocean, expected to be issued near the end of 2021, will help create policy for preserving the Indian Ocean and its ecosystems.